Monday, April 27, 2015

Introducing Today's Guest - Judith Starkston

Today, I'm delighted to introduce historical fiction author Judith Starkston, whose novel 'Hand of Fire' has been winning critical acclaim since its publication in September 2014.  I thought Judith's novel particularly appropriate for featuring on the Heroines of Fantasy blog, because the central character is one of the archetypal strong women of antiquity, and certainly an individual worthy of a more detailed exploration, as Judith will explain below.

Over to you, Judith...

Briseis, the heroine of my novel, Hand of Fire, was originally presented to the world as a largely voiceless captive woman in a 3,000-year-old epic poem, the Iliad, set within the Trojan War. I believed it was past time for her to tell her own story. I crafted Hand of Fire so that a reader had no need to be familiar with the Iliad. I wanted to bring to life both the woman and her world.
         A puzzle drew me originally to Briseis. The tradition indicates she is sorrowful when forced to leave Achilles, the warrior who took her captive. She loves him. Mind you, Achilles has destroyed her city, killed her husband and brothers and turned her from princess to slave. Not exactly a heartwarming courtship. So how does this bond between them arise? Achilles isn’t a brainwasher, so no easy answer that way. My novel explores the many-layered answer to this puzzle.
         One source of getting to know Briseis lay in the extraordinary archaeological discoveries of the last few decades that brought me a rich knowledge of what a historical woman of this place and time could accomplish—her powerful and authoritative role as a healing priestess, even within her patriarchal society.
           The deepest revelation in this search came when Briseis faced her darkest sides and grew to trust them—the darkness is not always filled with the worst possibilities in life. She realized that she shared those frightening aspects with this impossible, sexually alluring man whom tragedy had caused her to hate. He was getting harder to hate.
           That kind of revelation only comes from knowing a character as a living person—a writer’s imagination is filled at its best with creations of free will, who tell the author what goes on the page. How did I come to hear Briseis clearly enough so she could reclaim her voice? And Achilles’ voice, also?
          Briseis’s voice came to me gradually by writing back earlier and earlier into her life. I later deleted most of that early girlhood, but without those scenes she wouldn’t have spoken aloud. I had to think like a Bronze Age healing priestess who kept the mortal and divine worlds in harmony, outsmarted her violent husband, and earlier, coped as a frightened girl left motherless with the weight of her city’s fate on her shoulders.
          Getting to know Briseis’s voice was an intimate process. Achilles’ voice came to me in an entirely different way, but was just as necessary to understand Briseis’s feelings for him. He was so mythic and unapproachable. So I wrote my first attempts at Achilles in iambic pentameter—an English version of the Iliad’s Greek poetic lines. He was willing to step on that mighty and distant stage. I watched and learned. Eventually I heard his vulnerabilities, the contradictions that literally burned inside. Then I could write him without poetry. He’s still not a “normal” human being, but then he’s the son of a boundless goddess who can change shape at will. It took a powerful woman like Briseis to understand him and to renew her strength through her love for him—and to hold onto her independence. 

The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis. 

They gathered by the door and a guard pulled it open. Ash rained down and smoke assailed them. The linen masks created weird disfigurements as if the men had lost their mouths.
          They stumbled along the narrow lane, but when they came to the main road where they should have turned toward the far side of the city, flames and unbearable heat sidetracked them, forcing them back toward the marketplace. She thought they would still be able to reach the Stag Gate, but they would have to climb up the palace hill and go down the back way. With the Greeks gathering their loot at the Great Gate, she could think of no other choice.
         The man with the chest wound struggled and his pace was slowest, even with Iatros and another man supporting him. Briseis stayed next to her brother.
         She wondered, as they started up the hill, if the palace remained intact. With all the smoke, she could not see the top, but as they ascended, the sound of the firestorm lessened and the air became more breathable. She hoped the Greeks had finished pillaging.
         As they climbed, she listened to the heavy breathing of the man with the calf injury a few steps in front of her. Next to her Iatros stopped. Blood dribbled through the linen covering the mouth of the man with the chest injury. Iatros and the guardsman caught the man as he collapsed. Why had they thought this man could walk?
         They would have to make a litter. She saw a nearby gate ajar, opening into the courtyard of a large home.
         "Let's bring him in here." She helped her brother and the two other guardsmen carry the injured man inside. They laid him by the well.
          "We'll need something to make a litter," Iatros said.
          Briseis pulled off her cloak. "If you can find some stakes to tie my cloak to, that should work." The men scattered to search the stable and storerooms that opened onto the courtyard. The man with the calf injury started to limp away. She stopped him. "Rest now." He lowered himself onto the low wall surrounding the well.
          She drew some water and Iatros washed the face and mouth of the man with the chest injury. His eyes were closed, but he breathed. She turned toward the gate.
          "We should close the gate so no Greeks will find-" She stopped. A shadow had fallen across the opening.
           The guardsman sitting on the well drew his sword. Iatros pushed her down so she was hidden behind the well and drew his sword. She heard the sounds as bronze-nailed footsteps rushed. Swords clashed. A man fell.
           Then a voice called out in Greek, "Lord Achilles, come over-" There was a grunt, a thud. The voice fell silent. A Greek warrior lay against the well. His hand loosened its grip on his sword.
She lifted her head to see over the well. Iatros stared at his bloody sword and the dead Greek. The man with the leg wound was on the ground, his sword arm still outstretched, but his innards poured out onto the hard dirt.
           Other guardsmen came out of the stables, but it did not matter, for the gate filled with a huge form, and Achilles plunged towards Iatros. Her brother lifted his sword to meet the oncoming stroke. A rage rose up in her, the sound of a hundred bees filled her head. In one motion she swept the dead Greek's sword off the ground and leapt from behind the well. Achilles' blade flashed in the air above her. She saw his hands grasping the hilt and sensed their power, then saw his look of astonishment as she raised her blade against the blow aimed at her brother. A new, invincible strength coursed through her arms. The desire to strike - raw and terrifying - drove out her helplessness. Her blade met his. A bolt shot through her, and she reeled from the force. Achilles jerked his chest backwards even as the momentum of his swing carried him forward. Achilles' sword cut through the unprotected joint of her brother's armour between the neck and shoulder. Iatros' head fell to the side. As the weight of Iatros's body carried her to the ground, she heard an anguished cry and could not tell if it was hers or Achilles'.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Summer Reading

This will be my last post before my HoF hiatus begins. Come the time I'm up again, I will have a new book about to release (Seeking Carolina, from Lyrical/Kensington.) Fall will be in full swing, Halloween on the way, Thanksgiving and all the winter holidays just there on the horizon. But before me now is glorious summer, and we readers and writers know what that means--

When we were kids in school, we were the ones who might have complained about the summer reading assignment along with our friends, but secretly rejoiced. We could read without being told, "Go do something!" or "You're sitting under a tree reading when you could be at the lake with your friends?" Come on. You know you were that kid. I proudly admit to being so. When I was a little girl, I sat in tree in my yard reading about Ramona and Pippi and Harriet the Spy. I read fiction and non-fiction. Romance and fantasy and westerns. Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, and Cimmaron fed my love of horses. When I could drive, I went to the park just because I could (and because the massive branch finally broke off during a hurricane.) I sat under a tree there and got to know King Arthur and Guinevere, Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Thomas Covenant, Polgara, Tannis Half-Elven. Summer reading has ever been my favorite reading, and continues to be to this day. It wasn't long ago that I sat in my skychair devouring the entire Harry Potter series. There's just something about summer and reading that just goes so nicely together.

I want book recommendations. Caveat--it can't be your book. If you're an author, this is not the place to pimp your prose! Any and all blatant plugs will be deleted. Here are my book recommendations:

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. Easily one of the best books I've read all year.

Garden Spells and First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen. Garden Spells was her first; First Frost her most recent. They revolve around the same group of characters. Not only does it make a more complete story read together, but--if you're a writer--it's interesting to see the evolution of her writing skills and style. (Note, anything you pick up by SAA will be a summer treat. She's a favorite of mine.)

Od Magic, by Patricia McKillip. What can one say about Ms. McKillip? She's simply brilliant. Anything you read by her is going to become one of your new favorites. Od Magic happens to be my favorite.

The Gold Coast, by Nelson DeMille. This is an older title, but it makes a great, exciting summer read.

Here Be Dragons, by Sharon K. Penman. Another old title (1985,) but if you love a meaty historical, this one will keep you entertained. There are also three others in the Welsh History series. I read it about twenty years ago and I still think about it all the time.

I could go on forever. So many great books! What do you recommend?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wednesday Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: 2013
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Price: $10.99 (ebook), $15.99 (trade paperback)
Where to Purchase: Powells   |   Amazon   |   Barnes & Noble
Reviewed by: Julia Dvorin

Hello fellow HoF readers! Julia here again, this time with a review of The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Yes, I know, it’s a traditionally published book, but it is also one of the best books I’ve read recently and is both written by a woman and features a terrifically compelling female protagonist, so I still think it belongs here. Plus it’s such a great book, I really want you all to read it!

The Golem and the Jinni is one of those meticulously researched period pieces that makes you feel like you are truly in another place and time, in this case the lively, diverse metropolis of New York City right around the beginning of the 20th century (with the occasional foray into Eastern Europe and Syria). Set against the backdrop of the immigrant experience, we follow the two main titular characters (Chava, the curious, intelligent and practical Golem and Ahmad, the impulsive, creative and sensuous Jinni) as they enter New York and learn to live a new way in a new land. Chava is adopted by an elderly rabbi from the Lower East Side, and Ahmad is befriended by a kind tinsmith from Little Syria, and we get a fascinating look into the specific sub-cultures of both the Jewish and the Arabic immigrant communities, in many ways so different but in some ways so similar. Just like every other immigrant, both Chava and Ahmad must learn to cope with a variety of confusing and unfamiliar new circumstances and people, while simultaneously trying to both understand and hide their unique natures as magical beings. And of course...they find each other, connect and disconnect and connect again, and their relationship is as fresh and interestingly complicated as the teeming streets of New York.

In addition to the beautifully drawn setting, it is the characters that make this book really shine. Though Wecker has clearly done her homework on the myths and legends of both golems and genies, and creates her representative characters in respectful and culturally appropriate ways, she also manages to take those mythical characteristics and embody them in people who feel real and true and unique as individuals. Earthy Chava and fiery Ahmad are each totally convincing as both representatives of their magical types and as individuals, and the way they relate to each other and to their human communities makes for endlessly fascinating reading. There are a supporting cast of vivid and sympathetic secondary characters as well, who are each also excellently rooted in their respective cultures both old and new. Even her villain is believable and actually somewhat sympathetic.

Speaking of villain, Wecker also layers a really solid and interesting plot (and quite a few subplots) in here, with plenty of action, drama and setbacks that keep the book a page-turner right up to the last page. The whole story resolves in a very satisfactory way, although selfishly I am hoping maybe there might be a sequel someday.

I truly adored this book and have been recommending it to everyone I know. It seems to be a great “crossover” book—people who don’t normally read fantasy like it, and people who read only fantasy like it. I even made my book group read it, and most of them would prefer not to touch fantasy with a ten-foot pole. If you like great worldbuilding, vivid characters, beautiful writing and wise insights into identity, community and what it means to be a stranger in a strange land, you will love The Golem and the Jinni.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Guest Post - Linda Proud

Today, I'm stepping aside from my usual monthly post to make way for a rescheduled guest post featuring historical fiction writer Linda Proud.  I'm delighted for this opportunity to introduce Linda's works to a wider audience - her Botticelli Trilogy, set in15th century Florence and Tuscany and focussing upon the life and times of Lorenzo de Medici was a source of inspiration to me as I worked on honing my own skills as a historical fiction writer.  At times sublime and poetic, at times harrowing, her work casts light on the best and the worst that Humanity can offer, and the result is broad, majestic, and breath-taking, without ever losing sight of the small-scale, the domestic, the individual.  And now, without further ado, I will cease eulogising, and hand you straight over to Linda....

Maria Poliziana existed. She was the youngest sister of the poet, Angelo Poliziano. He mentions her twice in his letters, both times without much show of affection, so my first view of her was as a frumpy, stupid lump of a sister who was pushing him too hard to acquire benefices. This view was fed by a profile of her on the obverse of Poliziano’s portrait medal, where she looks chubby and somewhat obnoxious. The same image occurs on the obverse of the medal of Pico della Mirandola, the leading scholar of the age and Poliziano’s closest friend. Now that’s very little to go on, but sufficiently odd to attract the interest of a novelist. Why on earth would those two literary luminaries want to pair their image with that of the frumpy sister of one of them? In the age where image was symbol, this needed investigating.
          I'm not sure when my view of Maria changed. Perhaps it was when I was reconstructing Angelo's early life, trying to imagine what it was like to see your father murdered when you were only nine. Maria at this time was only one. The family were dispersed afterwards, the four children fostered here and there, the mother remarried (quickly, as was the norm). To all intents and purposes, they were orphans. It was entirely possible that Maria did not meet her brother again until she was adult.
          I went to Montepulciano to find out all I could about her. Were there any records? Do we know where she was buried? I remember now the city archivist laughing at me. 'Una donna? Ho! Ho! Ho!' Now who was being stupid, to go all that way in search of a woman? Women leave no records. So I had to make her up. Somewhere along the line, she began to make herself heard in my imagination, and I liked what she was saying. A lot.
       She enters the story in the second* book of the trilogy, Pallas and the Centaur, and shares the narration with Tommaso de' Maffei. Having given her a voice, I wanted her to use it in first person. This is an intelligent young woman in a man's world, in love with her brother and his friends, staunchly loyal as their world begins to fall apart.
             I can't imagine now the trilogy without her. I've always had trouble creating women, because of the dynamic between my own experience and what I think that experience should have been (i.e. the stock stereotype). I've met most of my characters in real life, mostly in fleeting glimpses. I met Maria on a vaporetto in Venice, slimmer than I'd imagined, but just as strong in feature with some pretty marvellous teeth. Una donna? Una bella donna.

* The second book can be read as a stand alone but it will spoil the plot of the first. All three books are currently available together as a special deal direct from Godstow Press.

Pallas and the Centaur is the middle volume of the trilogy. The first and last volumes are narrated by Tommaso de’ Maffei but in this middle book he shares the narration with the poet Poliziano’s sister, Maria. They say there are two kinds of novel: quest (Odyssey) and siege (Iliad). Pallas and the Centaur, set in a time of war, is definitely siege, the other two quest.


From the notebook of Maria Ambrogini,

called ‘Poliziana’

Sexagesima Sunday
I TRY SO HARD to love you, Lord God, and I fail. The fault is your own, for being invisible. It would be easier to love smoke – at least I can see it and smell it if not touch it. It would be easier to love an idea or dream, because I can think it. But if you cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelt or tasted, how am I to love you?
            This evening the sky over the Val di Chiana was astonishing: milky grey here, blue there, the clouds plum and apricot and strewn about like tattered banners. Over in the east, where that mysterious line of water catches the dying sun, it was orange and glowing. As the sun sank down behind our high, dark city, every tower in the valley before me, every castle, farmstead and hermitage capping one of the little hillocks shone like rich gold. Oh, how I wanted to be out there, where so many bells were tolling compline in the still air. Utter beauty!
            I told Suor Agosta what I had seen, about the eagles flying in a heaven as coloured as Joseph’s coat, but she looked down on me with great disapproval from her high chair at her writing desk. ‘These are worldly joys, child! The world is full of misery, however beautiful it seems. The sky is only a shadow of God’s radiance. Our true heaven is beyond the sky and brighter than anything you can imagine. Love God and abhor the world.’
            Regretting saying anything – but oh, how can I keep such things to myself forever? – I bent my head over my pharmacy labels.
            ‘Yes, Suor Agosta?’
            ‘How is it you saw the valley?’
            ‘I was feeding the doves as is my duty, Suora.’
            ‘The dove cot is not so high!’
            It is true, but from the ladder to the elevated cot I can clamber up on to the granary roof which slopes over the convent wall in such a shallow line as to be near enough flat; flat enough to stand on. ‘If I stand on tip-toe on the top rung, Suora,’ I lied, ‘I can just see over the granary roof.’ And I hung my head guiltily.
            ‘It is your duty to feed the doves, not to stand staring out to space, you idle girl! To love God properly you must do your duty.’
It is not that I think you do not exist. Of course you exist and are everywhere. But I doubt that you love me. Just as the sun shines on everyone, saint and sinner alike, so your love, if you have it, is indifferent. Well then, so must mine be. That is only fair, is it not? And until you show yourself to me, even as a dove or in a burning bush, it will remain so.
            At Easter my long probation shall come to an end and I shall take my vows as a novice; then, next year, when I am sixteen, I shall become a Bride of Christ. A vain and shallow wife of an invisible God, a God who, like a sultan, locks away so many wives for his own pleasure, whatever that might be! To my mind a life spent amongst women is no life at all. I may as well be dead. Who would want to end up like Madre Generale, bewhiskered, toothless and full of hatred of anything young?
            Dear Lord God, you have enough wives. Wherever you are, free me from this place and this destiny, this prison for unwanted daughters.

A new postulant arrived while we were feasting in the refectory, eating pigeon, hare and cheese, as well as the usual bread and minestra. Some of the nuns were eating much more than was good for them, as if to store up for the whole of Lent, and it is sure to be a night of much noise and disturbance in the dormitory as they come and go to the latrines, knocking against beds in the dark, farting and groaning. The new girl, a very dark, skinny little thing, is called Lauretta. Like me she is an orphan though two years younger, but she has spent those years on the Outside – and she has been married, wife to a mortal man! – and therefore seems older than me by far. I was sent to show her to our dormitory. Leaving my supper to the thieving fingers of my neighbours, I was glad to have the opportunity to talk to the frightened girl alone.
            ‘Where do you come from?’ I asked her as soon as we reached the silent cloisters.
            ‘So do I! What is it like? I was only five when I was sent here.’
            ‘Five? Why?’
            ‘I do not know. I presume my parents died. Someone must have paid for me. What is Cagnano like?’
            ‘But it is only twenty paces away!’
            ‘And beyond our walls. Tell me quick, before anyone comes, for here we must have God’s words on our lips all the time.’
            ‘Cagnano is horrible.’
            This told me nothing that I might see, touch or imagine. ‘In what way? What does it look like?’
            She shrugged. ‘Like anywhere else, only it is steep and in the shadow of the city much of the day. There are two cities, you know.’
            ‘Here! One above the other. Cagnano is in the lower part and catches all the slops and waste of the upper city. It’s just behind the lower wall and stinks like a drain.’
            I was shocked. I came from a good home, I am certain of it.
            ‘What is your family name?’ Lauretta asked.
            ‘Oh!’ She stepped back as if I were poisonous.
            As we neared the dormitory, I could hear someone following us – the Madre Generale herself to judge by the clipping tread she has, like a bird of prey hopping round a carcass.
            ‘Your family name?’ I whispered urgently.
            Lauretta was staring at me with frightened eyes.
            ‘Yours?’ I insisted.
            ‘Del Mazza,’ she whispered. She flinched as she said it, as if expecting me to strike her, but I was only raising my arm to the latch of the dormitory door. Before we could enter, old beaky was upon us.
            ‘Lauretta del Mazza, daughter of that murderous family of villains, come here.’
            Lauretta went to meet her in the shadows of the cloister, lit only by the wax torches held by myself and the Madre Generale.
            ‘On your knees, girl. Renounce the past and all will be well. Your only father now is God.’
            ‘Thanks be to God!’ Lauretta sank to her knees as if with great relief.
            Here, then, is another of them, someone to whom being in a convent is a liberation and a source of joy. Once again, as ever, my hope for a friend, someone I can talk to, who will understand and share my soul’s longings, is dashed.

Linda Proud is an English author best known for her novels set in Renaissance Italy. She was a freelance picture researcher before teaching creative writing to US students studying in Oxford, UK, which she did for twenty years, working mainly for Sarah Lawrence College. Her first novel, A Tabernacle for the Sun, won a bursary from Southern Arts and a month's residence at the writers' retreat of Hawthornden Castle. It was published by Allison and Busby in 1997. It was followed by Pallas and the Centaur and The Rebirth of Venus. ‘The Botticelli Trilogy’ has drawn praise from authors and academics as well as the general reader, and is considered as best of its kind by many reviewers, including Lonely Planet Guide to Florence and Tuscany: 'The historical detail in all three is exemplary, and each is a cracking good read.' Her fourth novel was the prequel, A Gift for the Magus**,  which won two awards in 2014.

In 2003 she and her husband, David Smith, founded Godstow Press and began publishing her novels themselves. They live in Oxford.

Currently she is working on a novel set in Iron Age Britain.

**A Gift for the Magus

According to Leon Battista Alberti in his book On Painting, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man.' Fra Filippo Lippi is notorious for his contempt of his vows: he was never obedient and nerve chaste. The nun who modelled for his pictures of the Virgin Mary became the mother of his children. Yet this apparently 'bad' man painted divine pictures; moreover, he was the favourite painter of that very astute patron, Cosimo de' Medici. Was Alberti wrong, or was Lippi a better man than generally believed? What is the nature of goodness?